A Brief History of Punk in Izhevsk, Russia by Alex Herbert
Resisting Monotony In An Industrial Wasteland: Dobro Pozhalovat’
By Guest Contributor Thursday, July 02 2015
If you’ve ever heard of Izhevsk, it probably had something to do with the Kalashnikov rifles (also known as AK-47s) that its factories introduced to the world. What is less known is that Izhevsk—the capitol of the Udmurtian Republic—is home to one of the youngest and most invigorating punk scenes in the Russian Federation.
Easily a sixteen-hour train ride from Moscow and a twenty-four hour drive from sumptuous St. Petersburg, Izhevsk is a small, isolated city on the outskirts of European Russia. The majority of Udmurtians living in Izhevsk are loyal communists who unhappily witnessed the Soviet regime topple. A brazen statue of Lenin outside the local library serves as both a rallying point for the conservative left wing and a popular late-night destination for bored, drunk, and disorderly punks looking for an easy scuffle. The city, like something out of a Lloyd Kaufman movie, is built around a man-made pond that has accumulated generations of industrial waste from its aforementioned rifle factories. Everything about the city is artificial. But the punks stalking the shores of Izhevsk Pond are the definition of real. Together, they embody something more profound than small-town political dissidence and obligatory “fuck you” antics. They recognize and hold something tangible in punk rock—something that is often lost in the consumerism of big cities and that is not entirely communicable to the average Udmurtian, let alone the average Russian. To them, punk rock is a community powerful enough to provide a real alternative to local conservative culture. That community has produced a very refined cohort of bands, labels, and fanzines, which have orchestrated a coup d’etat in punk scenes from Udmertia to the San Francisco Bay.
It’s hard to gauge how punk rock made its way to Izhevsk. Like many cities in the Soviet Union, punk was initially enmeshed within the local culture of rock bands belching out their best rendition of Western classics in local nightclubs (the Sex Pistols, the Clash, and all the early greats heard on BBC radio became standard covers for Soviet and then-Russian rock bands). By the late 1980s, the city became known for its electronic music scene, which may explain how cassette copies of Yegor Letov’s innovative punk act from Omsk, Grazhdanskaya Oborona, found their way into the hands of some local rock aficionados. However, that rumor can’t be substantiated by anyone who may have experienced it. What is certain is that as punk scenes in Russia’s major cities consolidated in the late 1990s and early 2000s, their influence spread to more remote, provincial cities such as Izhevsk.
Despite the decrepitude, the skate park did become an inconspicuous place to hang out and exchange music and ideas. In their effort to master new tricks, people like “Iron” Nikita, front man of Unbroken Bones, religiously watched skateboarding videos dubbed over with punk tunes. “I didn’t even know that it was called punk rock or hardcore, just cool music,” he recalls. Unsurprisingly, the music was conducive to a successful skate session, and it wasn’t long before Naïve, Karol I shut, the Dead Kennedys, 7 Seconds, and Agnostic Front became required listening for Nikita’s rapidly growing entourage. One had to be really determined to get the music you wanted back in the days of Izhevsk’s dial-up internet. Nikita each day meticulously downloaded each song. The process consumed most of the day, if it even worked at all. Another way of getting at the new music, albeit a surprisingly even longer and more unreliable path, was through mailorder catalogs (the Russia postal service is notoriously corrupt and slow) from Moscow and St. Petersburg. Distros such as Old Skool Kids, Karma Mira, and Neuroempire served as important engines through which Russia’s “provincial” youth could hear new sounds.
Reasons Live, 2014:
Nikita wasn’t alone in his penchant for “cool music.” Something about punk’s raw energy conveyed the bottled-up boisterousness found in the outwardly laconic miscreants. “In your own small town if you don’t have anything else, you have something in punk rock” says Danya Bykov, one of those twenty-something-year-old punks stalking Lenin’s statue at night in search of a conservative communist to scrap with. Danya is known throughout the city as the greatest guitar player, and the list of bands he plays for attests to that: Misery, Sea Devils, Reasons, and most recently, Milligan.
Another important figure, some might even say the golden boy of Izhevsk’s punk scene, Sasha “Germ” discovered the music from a stranger while in the hospital. The story is told by him like a plot twist straight from a Gogol short story, “When I had a rotten finger, I got put in the hospital. A guy who was ill near me was listening to Karol I Shut. I copied the cassette tape and fell in love with this music. So thanks to my rotten finger.” But Sasha’s real punk christening occurred at a show headlined by the Moscow-based group Naïve at the city’s House of Culture, where the crowd was expected to sit and stare aimlessly at the stage. Soon after the band started, “punks broke the first five rows, and everyone was standing because of the broken rows.” Sasha was consumed by the power of Naïve’s show compared to local rock shows, which “consisted of boring Russian rock bands that played blues-like or something in a Russian way.” Naïve, on the other hand, “was about teenage life, about how parents don’t understand you, and about unsuccessful love.” Sasha understood the relevance, and while the lyrics of Naïve might seem rudimentary to him now, the music’s ability to distill teenage angst into a sonic, earsplitting punch resonated.
By the early 2000s, punk was a pervasive genre in the city, but few local bands maintained an actual scene. Indikator, which is widely viewed as the first punk band in Izhevsk, only played a few concerts because, as the band’s frontman Timur Slaboda said, “There was no scene really, only a group of friends who played Sex Pistols covers.” Whatever semblance of a scene that did exist, it was stitched together by a plethora of joke bands like the Speedy Toasters and Dianetica (a reference to Scientology).
Red Card Live, 2008:
The first local band to successfully metabolize punk’s energy into something profound was a Red and Anarchist Skinhead (RASH) oi band, Red Card. Performing songs like “Proletarian Revenge” and “Ideological Slave,” the band invited their fans to think for themselves and stand up to the omnipresent conservative culture rampant in their city. The band actively promoted vegetarianism and straightedge through a rough-and-tumble punk ethos that transformed their fans into a conscious community, mutually responsible for each other in the fight against pervasive and often dangerous nationalism. Up to that point, most Izhevsk punks had only heard bands from Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the West. The opportunity to experience a local show, with local musicians, singing relevant songs, became a reality for fans seemingly overnight.
Bands like Indikator, Red Card, and My Crazy Days paved the way for what would become Izhevsk’s golden generation of punk rockers. Punk festivals and concerts were a regular occurrence around the pond by 2007. They also drew a number of people from surrounding cities. “All of our community in Kazan, around forty to fifty people, were going to Izhevsk for shows like Indikator, Sudny Den, and Unsubs (Kirov). In Izhevsk, we had seen for the first time so many skinheads and punks in one place,” said Bulat Ibyatov, originally of Kazan but now of the Moscow record label Siyanie. More importantly, it gave locals like Danya the opportunity to experience their first real show. “I didn’t understand it at first. People going crazy, fighting without any violence,” he said, adding, “I don’t believe in anything, but I believe in that.”
Unbroken Bones Live, 2012:
Izhevsk entered Russia’s punk periphery from out of nowhere. Nikita put together Unbroken Bones in early 2008 with the aim of claiming a spot for Izhevsk on the punk rock world map, and it was also the year eighteen-year-old Sasha formed Scrap Monsters to make punk more germane to everyday life in Izhevsk. Duat Yuzovka, front man for Aybat Hallar (Ufa) remembers playing a show with Red Card in Izhevsk in May 2007, in which more than one hundred and eighty people attended. “[Izhevsk] was always one of our favorite places to play,” he said. Scrap Monsters played its first show in 2008 with Mister X (Belarus) and Red Card. More than one hundred people packed themselves into the local House of Culture. That’s impressive for a city with around 320 square kilometers of land and a population of less than 650,000. An underground punk gig at the time in Moscow, with a population close to twelve million, typically brought around two hundred people.
Scrap Monsters Live, 2012:
The scene swelled so much that it generated animosity amongst local neo-nazi groups, who habitually attempted to sabotage shows. At a Turbolax (Tolyatti) show, with over two hundred and fifty people—arguably Izhevsk’s “most successful show,” according to Sasha—neo-nazis called the police and reported a bomb in the venue. “Police came and spent two hours looking for the bomb. Then they said they didn’t find it but closed the concert anyway,” he remembered. Sasha, ever the resourceful and determined one, reconvened the band and its fans at Scrap Monster’s former practice space, a squat-like abandoned theater outside the city’s center.
Fascist activity wasn’t the only obstacle to the budding scene in 2008. Agents for Russia’s Department of Extremism also sought to stifle all “fascist and anti-fascist youth movements,” which is as vague as it sounds. “They would go to a show and say, ‘The show is over’ or they could find some, for example, mistakes in the ‘fire safety code’ to kick us out,” Nikita recalled. There was another time in 2008 when the cops “came and beat the public,” forcing everyone to disburse. In a small, ideologically conservative city, any gig that deviated from the standard colorless rock ensemble replete with a comatose audience constituted a potentially subversive gathering.
Despite the persistence of some, the scene’s relegation to the (illegal) underground meant less fans at concerts, and the local scene started to decline around 2010. The next best thing for bands like Scrap Monsters, Unbroken Bones, and Reasons was to forge close connections with scenes in places like Ufa, Kazan, and Yekaterinburg, where locals had cultivated a comparatively irrepressible subculture. In that way, the resulting outward movement of bands only made Izhevsk’s scene more exportable, and it incentivized bands to record their first releases: Unbroken Bones Demo (2009), Scrap Monsters Total Control (May 2009) Reasons Road to Home (May 2009).
“We would travel and sleep in the van or in the flat of people who organized the show,” said Danya about touring with Reasons. Not all bands could afford to tour unpaid, so Danya said “When our friends went on tour we gave them cassettes to distribute.” If a local group went abroad, they took practically the city’s entire discography with them.
While playing shows in Izhevsk became increasingly difficult, recording got easier and cheaper starting in 2010. That year, after recording his own band’s album, Nikita decided to open his own record label, Drunk With Power Records. “I contacted some bands about trade and distribution and started to find some money for that by selling some old things from my own collection,” he says. According to Nikita, the label’s purpose is not only to promote his own band, but also to release foreign bands in Russia.
Sasha also seized the opportunity to expand by starting Teenage Waste Records in late 2010 and published the city’s first fanzine under the same name in 2011 (his first attempt was in 2008 under the name Cheers and Beers, which he refers to as a “teenage mistake”). The new zine adopted a mantra from an Abrasive Wheels song by claiming to be “Just another punk fanzine, just another Teenage Waste,” although it couldn’t be further from that. After the first issue in 2011, Teenage Waste had climbed Maximum Rocknroll’s list of top ten fanzines in December of 2011. Rightfully so, as it typified the DIY spirit it reported to endorse. All prints come from Sasha’s personal printer and all editions continue to be loaded with interviews, album reviews, and commentary about DIY bands from the post-Soviet world and abroad. Sasha also reached out to American zines and distros to exchange music. “I started to write them. ‘Hey we are a band from Russia and want to trade CDs,’” he recalls, adding that “some would reply, ‘Oh, CDs aren’t popular anymore. Write me back when you have vinyl.”
It is impossible to make vinyl in Russia—the country simply lacks the facilities. The only option for Drunk With Power and Teenage Waste was to reach out to European and American labels to get vinyl pressed. “I can’t really take distribution in Russia seriously like I do in other places around the world,” said Nikita after listing his label’s resulting international connections. The challenge, in the end, turned out to be a good thing for Izhevsk’s burgeoning labels, because, as Sasha said, “When you trade with some people from another country, you understand that punk rock is international… it’s like a net spread all over the world. All of the touring and entrepreneurship made the scene into something cohesive, and it received a reputation throughout the country as a particularly unusual case of small-city ambition. The excess of outward growth partially stemmed from the abundance of creativity confined to such a small area, but it was also a consequence of the city’s aversion to punk rock itself. Clubs simply refused to allow punk bands to perform, and there is nothing more appealing for artistic kids than defying the status quo.
Minefield Live, 2012:
Then something changed in 2011 when Danya formed Misery and Sasha, along with friends Damir, Misha, and Sereja formed Minefield. Even Nikita admits, “It was my favorite time in Izhevsk’s scene.” Minefield in particular resolved the conflict between youth disenfranchisement and the city’s disdain for punk rock by telling all authority to “fuck off.” They proceeded to book shows anyway. (The band’s first 7” was characteristically called Ot”ebis which translates to “fuck off” in Russian. It pictured a punk smashing a bottle into his own eye with another writing, “God listens to Minefield” on a building in the background). The first demo came out in 2011 and it was a powerful discharge of exuberance in the form of lively traditional hardcore complemented by youthful vigor. The jolt of energy came just in time, as purveyors of the scene started to realize that Izhevsk’s local scene suffered from a serious lack of enthusiasm.
With that in mind, part of the reason Sasha and Danya claim they formed Minefield and Misery to bring the city’s own fanbase back to life. As Sasha says, the only way to improve the situation seemed to be “to wait for something to open or open it yourself.”
Sasha and Danya’s outgoing tenacity exemplifies the subculture’s propensity to embolden those who feel trapped in a system they don’t endorse. In Izhevsk, this means devoting every day to furthering a scene that has provided its loyal followers with so much. “For people involved in this, it has become a part of their personal history. Punk and hardcore taught us to be ourselves, to have another opinion,” Sasha said. For others, the experience with punk is more transcendental, “Don’t know how to describe it really, but it’s something new, like I opened another, freer side of my mind and my thoughts,” says Danya, never failing to assume the role of drunken philosopher. Even one of the city’s veteran punk rockers, Ruslan Khrust of Red Card, regards punk rock not simply as music or a style, but “primarily a people, their actions, their principles of life, and their ability to defend their beliefs and fight for their ideals.”
Minefield and Misery’s responsibility for rekindling Izhevsk’s punk scene in 2011 cannot be overstated. Sasha began booking shows at clubs that detested punk rock. The club owners shut down shows and forced the crowd to move out in a giant exodus once they realized what kind of music poured through their speakers. But the kids couldn’t be stopped. Sasha and the crew always finished the show in the woods or a practice space, adding a new dynamic to the already enticing subculture of rebellion. The re-emergence of activity also gave preexisting titans such as Unbroken Bones and Reasons the chance to play more shows at home, reinvigorating the interest of many who left the scene a few years before. Instead of recreating what was lost, Minefield and Misery inadvertently erected a larger, more powerful movement. Izhevsk, with their help, went from an anomaly in Russia’s greater punk scene to something comparable to Russia’s most active.
As Izhevsk rose in awareness in the eyes of Moscow and St. Petersburg, bands seized the opportunity to organize their first long-distance tours using their own money. Their DIY antics and small-town spirit made an impression on big city bands and their energy was contagious. “We played with Minefield in Moscow and they destroyed the whole place. The vocalist jumped like crazy, the drummer beat the shit out of his drum set, and the guitarist just couldn’t stay at the same place for more than two seconds,” recalled Maksim Dinkevich of Da, Smert, and online music publication Sadwave.com.
Moscow’s large scene and proclivity for diversity reciprocated the liveliness Unbroken Bones and Reasons transmitted for Nikita and Danya. However, it also brought in highly unorganized and often sleazy promoters. Minefield’s first experience in Moscow almost ended abruptly when, “We were coming back from Ukraine with one week left until the show in Moscow, and the promoter admitted that he didn’t have a place to do the show. We told him, ‘Man, you can do it anywhere—a garage, a rehearsal spot. We don’t care.’” Sasha lamented, reliving the experience in his head. The amateurish promoter backed out of the situation altogether and Sasha was forced to contact one of Moscow’s most well known punk rock promoters, “Bagi” Boev of East Beat Records, to set up a last minute, un-promoted concert.
As enticing as the story of small town punk in the big city is, the differences between them run deeper than flakey promoters and tolerable venues. Truthfully, Moscow crowds never quite sated the bands’ hunger for crowd participation and enthusiasm, unless they opened for bands like Power Trip (US), which Unbroken Bones managed to do. “In the provinces," Sasha said, "people are more relaxed. They don’t care about how they look when they are dancing, how they support bands. In big cities with old scenes like Moscow and Kiev, people just look at you because they’ve seen it all.” There is a spirit in cities like Izhevsk, Kazan, Ufa, Perm, and others that, for whatever reason, seems more palpable than other places.
Izhevsk is a peculiar case because of the attention it has received beyond Russia. For example, Minefield and Scrap Monsters have gained the attention of Maximum Rocknroll more recently (an interview with Minefield is featured in MRR #385, June 2015), and Nikita’s label has issued releases in Canada, Japan, and Germany. Unbroken Bones, as previously mentioned, has played shows with Power Trip and Onslaught (U.K.). Danya’s new project—Milligan—is yet to break out of Russia, but he maintains hope in knowing that a man from Brazil and another from Australia purchased Reasons shirts online.
The scene today is still limited locally, but it has continued to experience outward growth, which is important, considering there are still no clubs willing to host punk rock bands. (The city’s only club BVI, is a decidedly unfriendly spot for punk rock, as it caters more towards a wealthy clientele). In summer 2014, Unbroken Bones, Scrap Monsters, and Milligan, played their first local show in some time in a bedroom-sized practice space. Underground efforts like this are rare, but they seem to be the only way of keeping locals interested in punk rock.
This story of an emerging punk movement is most likely just like anyone else’s small-city tale. Punk culture is reinforced by decades of history in almost every Western city. In New York, your dad’s dad could have been a punk rocker. But small city scenes experience a cyclical boom and bust that often occur in rapid succession, giving rise to a particularly energetic and rambunctious group of kids, who are then remembered and emulated by succeeding generations. Izhevsk’s scene is not interesting because of its originality, but because it is a contemporary example of that aforementioned generation-to-be-emulated. In Izhevsk, we are experiencing the birth of something that will be remembered, if even just by future kids in a remote city.
Amongst the rumors that “punk is dead” and the increasing marketability of dissidence, Izhevsk reminds us that punk rock is still inherently organic and self-perpetuating. It gives isolated, disenfranchised youth the opportunity to push back against Russia’s increased censorship and radical conservatism, in a way that is both constructive and communicable across the world. In Izhevsk, the future will test whether a movement fomenting such passion and inventiveness can endure in an increasingly disparaging environment, and whether or not creative cultural dissidence can ever really be quelled. Even Sasha “Cha Cha” Ivanov of Naïve, one of Moscow’s first punk acts, can’t help but admit that Izhevsk’s punk scene embodies “something strange” when compared to the rest of Russia. For Nikita and others, the city’s story offers a particularly compelling “micro-Russian” paradigm for understanding Russia’s broader history with the subculture. No matter the extent of political or ideological restriction, punk rock has a certain staying power that resonates with creative individuals who feel they are on the outside looking in.
Alex Herbert, along with longtime friend Tommy Dean, are writing a comprehensive history of Russian punk rock using a number of interviews, lyrics, fanzines, and other information they compiled in summer 2014 (and continue to compile). Alex is a Ph.D. student of Russian history and Tommy is a freelance writer. The two grew up listening and playing hardcore punk and have since found other ways to give back to the scene that had a major impact on their lives. To contact either of them, please email Altomac3@gmail.com.
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